Creating the look of the tropics with palms is surprisingly easy to achieve in the home garden. It’s reckoned over 100 different varieties will grow in Auckland and north of the city, and while they’re best suited to the humid climate of the northern regions, given a warm, sheltered situation, they’re also right at home in other parts of the country, with many varieties able to withstand frosts and salt-laden coastal conditions. You can see New Zealand’s largest collection of palms, including our only native palm, the Nikau, plus cool-tolerant palms from around the world in the Auckland Botanic Gardens.
The warmer the soil the faster the growth and, before planting, it’s important to consider what size a particular palm will reach when fully mature. Many of the hardy, fast-growing varieties, such as queen palms, Mexican fan palm or cotton palm, can grow to around 18 to 20 metres, dwarfing a smaller property. Palms are not cheap so avoid a costly mistake by seeking advice from a specialist grower.
South pacific palms ‘Top 20’ is an excellent start when checking the features of the most popular varieties. This ‘best seller’ list includes the king palm, with its attractive grey/white trunk when mature; the popular and fast growing bangalow, which can reach a height of 10 meters in 20 years; the hardy and elegant Kentia, which also happily grows indoors; the wedding palm, which Stephen Dobbs notes is particularly popular for courtyard and poolside planting; and the rare wax palm “a real collector’s item”.
Palms are generally shallow rooting and do best in a moist well-drained soil that’s received plenty of good compost or manure. Follow up with a little slow release fertiliser in early spring. The issue of drainage is an important one; palms hate wet feet and while they will grow in a clay-based soil, it needs to be well drained.
No subtropical landscape design is complete without palms; they’re particularly well suited to planting near swimming pools and around water features. And even smaller courtyards can support a palm or two with many varieties adapting happily to containers. Keep container-grown palms in scale with their surroundings by re-potting only when the plant is pot bound.
They can also be successfully transplanted when mature and although that can require pretty heavy machinery the result is an instant tropical oasis!
Whether palms are planted in clusters or used as standalone specimens, choose under-planting that continues the tropical theme. Cycads – often mistaken for palms – such as the sago palm, hibiscus, jasmine, cannas, ferns, clivias and bromeliads – are great options that will add colour and texture and that extra touch of lushness to the overall sub-tropical garden design.
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